Real debates need more candidates and more views

Lawrence Lessig calls for “Open Debates”:

  1. The presidential debates are for the benefit of the public. Therefore, the right to speak about the debates ought to be “owned” by the public, not controlled by the media.
  2. “Town hall” Internet questions should be chosen by the people, not solely by the media.

and expands on these principles in his letter signed by 23 people.

A much better Open Debates is found online at Lessig’s call to action is timid and doesn’t address the most salient problem with the Commission on Presidential Debates (or CPD) “debates”—the slim distance between the only two participants allowed on the floor makes for a very narrow discussion. Allowing any candidate who has enough ballot access to theoretically win the presidency would change the debates from a predictable snoozefest to being something worth watching.

The CPD “debates” were designed to only allow in the Democratic and Republican nominees. Under the CPD’s leadership the candidates never face questions outside the range of allowable debate:

  • pro-war—whom shall we bomb or invade instead of whether we go to war; if you’re poor and your children are headed to the military to try and get a government-funded college education, these two candidates are asking you where you want your children to die: Iraq (McCain), Afghanistan (Obama), or Iran (McCain/Obama). If Obama gets his way, Pakistan may be on the list as well.
  • anti-universal single-payer health insurance—McCain’s comment in the first CPD “debate” (“I want to make sure we’re not handing the health care system over to the federal government which is basically what would ultimately happen with Senator Obama’s health care plan.”) was intended to be a dig at Obama but it fell flat because Obama is just as much against single-payer universal health insurance as McCain. This despite recent CBS and CNN polls that 60-64% of Americans want “guarantee[d] health insurance for all”.
  • pro-corporate bailout—neither candidate needs to explain clearly why it’s the American public’s job to take on the loans the lending institutions don’t want to carry, nor any clear guarantee of responsibilities should we bail them out. Instead viewers get more talk along the lines of how quickly we must engage what is called the “rescue” legislation. Should this not work, will the Democrats come to the corporation’s rescue again and call off any talk of investigation or trial like they rescued Pres. G. W. Bush by taking impeachment “off the table”?
  • Expressing outrage at Russia for an illegal invasion without acknowledging recent illegal American invasions.

I’m for placing the raw footage in the public domain but increased access to these recordings won’t address any of the more important life and death/big money issues above. And to Lessig’s second principle: it’s trivially easy for the CPD to game that system with shills who won’t ask questions outside the allowable range of debate. Other candidates in real debates would bring up issues and views that the corporate-funded candidates don’t want to answer and offer the American public better perspectives on important issues of the day.

Update (2008-10-12): Amy Goodman’s column focuses on this issue as well providing more background on the CPD (audio, transcript).